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Researcher Misspent Cancer Money on Software, UC Irvine Concludes

An audit states that the division head diverted as much as $2.3 million intended for projects.

September 29, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

A leading UC Irvine researcher who heads a division of the university's College of Medicine misspent as much as $2.3 million in federal and state funds, according to results of a preliminary university investigation released Tuesday.

Most of the money, intended largely for cancer research, was spent instead on an unauthorized software data project, auditors concluded.

They describe Hoda Anton-Culver, who heads the epidemiology division, as a renegade division chief who fired staff members and ignored attempts by university officials to rein her in as she struggled to cobble together sufficient funds for her research project.

Anton-Culver did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday. Auditors noted that she disagrees with their conclusions.

The yearlong probe was prompted by a routine audit last fall and subsequent complaints by former and current employees.

Much of the inquiry revolves around Anton-Culver's decision in 2001 to pay KB Quest, a private firm, more than $1.35 million to design computer software to process information on California cancer patients, the report said.

The remainder of the money questioned by auditors was used to pay administrative and clerical salaries and expenses.

Physicians in Orange, San Diego and Imperial counties are required to report all cancer cases to UC Irvine as part of a state Department of Health cancer registry.

Without informing university administrators or securing separate funding for the software project, Anton-Culver hired KB Quest to develop computer programs that would combine two separate databases that compile data on the region's cancer cases, the report says.

Auditors concluded that Anton-Culver pursued the project despite knowing about a similar software program being designed at the same time by state health officials, which UC Irvine and other regional registry programs are now required to use. According to the report, Anton-Culver expected the private software project to be superior to the state's.

To pay KB Quest, Anton-Culver diverted funds from 17 federal and state awards reserved for different purposes, the report said. Most of the money -- nearly $800,000 -- was taken from National Cancer Institute multiyear grants intended to fund research projects on the possible genetic causes of cancer.

The report says Anton-Culver tried to keep attention away from the project and circumvent university procedures by breaking the total cost of the software into several smaller purchase orders and by not signing a formal contract with KB Quest.

At several points in the report, auditors portray Anton-Culver as a difficult and, at times, "hostile" person who denied administrators access to documents and ignored College of Medicine Dean Thomas C. Cesario, who ordered her to stop work on the software project after questions arose.

Throughout the ongoing investigation, senior university officials have ordered Anton-Culver to spend grant money only with a supervisor's approval.

University officials declined to comment on the report but said in a written statement that the federal and state agencies must now decide whether Anton-Culver's use of the funds falls within the intended scope of the awards.

The agencies could ultimately require the university to repay some or all of the funds.

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